Category Archives: those that tremble as if they were mad

Doing All the Days with LZOrk – SPRING 2019

LZOrk Spring Concert: Thursday, May 16, 2019 | 7:00 p.m.Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600

For the fourth year running — they haven’t caught me yet! — The Viper has sprung the Spring as a Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. When the white snows of yesteryear’s Winter have receded, when the vernal hours and aestival days begin to thicken, when single-serving snackbags bloom red, yellow, and dream-lucid blue on each and every Milwaukee curb and root-snag, well, then’s when’s I show up, four strings and all, to corrupt our nation’s musical youth with notions of collaborative composition, creative “borrowing”, head arrangements, and well-turned melody as equipment for living.

So that’s always fun.

clyde

The word cloud above is based on last year’s post-concert response asking LZOrk students to describe the Composer in Residence program, which you can read more about on Mr. Broach’s teaching site here.

This year, due to the arrival of the newest little conductor in Mr. Broach’s house, and his consequent paternity leave, my work with the students had the able support of Susan Phillips — and I wanted to be sure to recognize all her contributions to this year’s project here. I ask for some strange things and deliver rehearsal materials in some pretty unorthodox forms, so I’m very glad she was game for it!

Intermezzo

For the 6th-grade group of musicians, I typically bring a simple lead sheet of the type that a small jazz, country, or rock band might use to make “head arrangement” out of a familiar song structure, like the 32-bar AABA pop song form of “Winnebago Bay” or “Heartbreak for Beginners” (recordings from the 2018 & 2017 Spring concerts, respectively).

In rehearsals, we’ll work out how many times the orchestra would go through the form in performance and figure out which instruments are going to do what, where to provide variety and the structural development of the piece — with the emphasis on how the music itself (as distinct from the lyrics) can tell a story that starts somewhere and ends up someplace else.

A couple years ago, with “Just That Good” (see workshop video above), we found the 12-bar blues form worked pretty well in this regard. So this year I brought them a Spring-into-Summer seasonal celebration song called “Do All The Days With You,” which puts a New-Orleans-rumba-Professor-Longhair-style twist on the 12-bar form, including the distinctive habanera rhythm for the bass figure you see in the “rumba” line (lower staff) below.

Do All the Days Fragment - Rumba

The idea was to show how some fairly simple fragments, like the bass line + the basic melody figure (“call”):

Do All the Days Fragments - Call

… a response:

Do All the Days Fragments - Response

… and a counterpoint:

Do All the Days Fragments - Counterpoint

…could be layered on top of one another to produce some rather complicated and funky polyrhythms, which themselves would take on a different character when played in different permutations and combinations by the different instrument sections.

We figured out that with five instrument groups (violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, and basses) and 5 different parts (which might include playing nothing at all!) there were 3,125 different ways we could play the first two measures alone!

Here’s the arrangement we settled on (pdf here): the text tells the player what to “go fetch” in terms of their fragment for each time through the form:

Do All The Days - Structure Notes

And here’s what a couple of combinations could sound like, as sketched out for our final two instrumental “out” chorus (in all the glorious midi sound of my MuseScore software).

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/do-all-the-days.mp3

Looking forward to hearing how it all pulls together on Thursday night!

Chamber

If the work with the Intermezzo group focuses on arrangement, I like to get the older group of 7th/8th graders involved at the level of composition itself. And, again, this follows the model I might use with my own Famous Orchestra, in which rehearsals become the lab in which some germ of an idea I’ve had gets worked up into something fuller. With the Chamber Orchestra, this often takes the form of testing out ways of taking a bass riff and changing it up the rhythm, the ornamentation, or the harmonization, as we’ve done with The Monsters Are Coming” or “(It’s Gonna Be) Another Day” (2017 & 2018 Spring concerts, respectively).

The piece I brought in for them this year, “Leave a Picture (Take a Person),” is something I wrote literally the day after last year’s concert, based on an idea of creating a loop that would undergird variations. But then I had to wait a whole year to hear how it would develop with the whole orchestra!

It’s a simple, mostly through-composed piece that takes a slow Beatle-y melody, adds in some Bollywood-ish call & response, and punctuates the verses with a two-measure, four-chord progression I creatively borrowed (i.e., stole) in equal parts from George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Big Star’s “Feel.”

Leave a Picture (vamp chords)

Which sounds like this:

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/leave-a-picture-chords.mp3

In the instrumental middle of the song, that bit becomes a looped “vamp” over which the orchestra riffs based on some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that came out of the workshops. And we end up stealing some other bits and pieces from other recognizable places — see if you can hear where in this midi-rendering version of the full score:

https://viperblog.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/leave-a-picture-final-score.mp3

Can’t nobody tell us nothing. At least until Thursday! See you all then.

The Viper appears as Composer-in-Residence and soloist with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North  (LZOrk) for their Spring 2019 concert on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. (95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600)

…and it WAS another day.

A couple weeks ago now, The Viper showed up on May 17, 2018 and did his duty as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach.

You can read about this program and how we all approached it this year in my previous post, but in this space here I plan to turn the page over to the words of the 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (now about to become 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade students, some of whom I’ve worked with for all three years of their middle-school careers) who performed full string orchestra versions of Viper-made songs “Winnebago Bay” and “Another Day.” I really appreciated reading everyone’s comments, which — enjoyably gentle insults aside! — showed a lot of thoughtfulness and appreciation for the uniquely challenging approach Riley takes to setting up and teaching his orchestra courses.

So here’s the questions that Mr. Broach posed to them, post-concert, followed by a word cloud showing the words they used with the greatest frequency (as a group) in their responses. (You can find a fuller rendering of many of these comments on the LZORK page right here.)

Q: What did you learn from The Viper?

blinky
blinky

Q: How do you describe the Composer in Residence thing we do in orchestra?

clyde
clyde

Q: Tell me about the song you might compose over the summer!

inky
inky

Q: Write a message to The Viper!

pacman
yer Viper

Thanks again to Mr. Broach and to the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North for all their great work and tremendous patience with me this year. I’ll be back — but for now all I have to say is:

Lake Zurich, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.

so_fly_cover-rotated.png
Amn’t I?

Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.

Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?

It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.

Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.

Heartbreak for Beginners

Heartbreak for Beginners (detail)
Play along!

The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a song learned hand-to-hand.

When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)

I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.

That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.

Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.

What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.

That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!

Dance 1 (1)
See more photos from this production at Lynden artist in residence Eddee Daniel’s Arts Without Borders blog.

As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.

At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.

And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by its gravity and wisdom!

And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinking about it.

But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.

So, while I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!

flee_lyrics-rotated
First shot at lyrics to “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”

Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.

flee_plot-rotated
The plot – plus a couple of bonus fingers.

After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.

The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – Pt. 3: Blasphemy!

Pt. 3 of 3. For pt. 1, go here. And for pt. 2, go elsewhere.

Erstwhilishly, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Music “musicially uncharacteristic” of Neil Young…
  • Neil Young as heard by someone also hearing someone else (here’s looking at you, Transformer man, Lou. And at you, too, Drive By Truckers. And then at you three, Booker T.)…
  •  Vampires with long straws, vampires with a tar sands thing…

Having had twice already taken to the stage at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee for the annual WMSE/Bridge School benefit show and Neil Young tribute concert known as Kneel to Neil, and having had once already played Neil Young songs that weren’t much like Neil Young songs (Nov. 11, 2011), and then having had once already played Neil Young songs that were half someone’s else’s songs (Nov. 4, 2013), we knew that in 2015 it was time to have had taken our charge to Kneel to Neil to its fully aporetically alogical conclusion: we would play Neil Young songs that weren’t Neil Young songs at all.

We knew we were playing with fire in taking under such an undertaking. And when baby plays with fire? Sometimes baby gets burned.

November 14, 2015

It was Kneel to Neil, n’est-ce pas? So we figured all those gold heart searchers would be okay with it if The Viper and His Orchestra revived a few songs Neil Young had covered and made his own, even if he hadn’t written them. And we figured that among all the resident cowgirls in the sand, Cortez killers, and sleepless rusters hanging around Linneman’s bar, some might even be kind of excited if we resuscitated some surf-rock curio juvenilia from the Squires, the Winnipeg, Manitoba band with whome a teenage Neil Young learned his way around the guitar.

I mean, Manitoba’s, like, the Wisconsin of Canada, right? Or is that Alberta? I guess it’s Alberta:

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Milwaukee!” Vocal by Frank Gari.

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Calgary!” Vocal by Florence Warner.

But we didn’t know how to figure on how those finding it hard to make arrangements with themselves might take it if we were to up and write some Neil Young songs of our own.

We definitely didn’t figure on the full-throated and whiskey-sized cries of “Blasphemy” coming from the guy in the back of the room, then sadly muttering to himself: “I just really like Neil Young.”

But that’s what happened! We think! Because Liz Hirsch told us!

I hope it’s true, because it’s my favorite live review of our music since the time we played a song called “The Monsters Are Coming” at a kids show in Urbana, Illinois and a mob of distressed children surged toward the front to call us “liars!”

And that’s only one of the many odd happenstances and misfortunes befalling us this time around on our long road to Linneman’s. But that’s all right. We like it nice and rough. Listen to the story.

The Backstory

Some time back, trombonist Rob Henn had posted on Facebook a link to a Newsweek listicle with the clickbait-y title, “The Top 12 Least Essential Neil Young Albums.” But noting that the list only included records Young had actually recorded, I proposed an alternative list of albums that Neil Young had not only not released or even recorded, but hadn’t even considered… yet. Here’s that list:

The Viper’s top 12 least essential not-yet-existing Neil Young albums.

  1. Neil Young Sings “Cha Cha Slide” and Other Party Favorites
  2. Out and About (We Canadians Love To Shout)
  3. The Discourses of Brigham Young, as Read by Neil Young (Namesake Series of Books on Tape)
  4. Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great
  5. There’s a Town in North New Brunswick, Too
  6. Why I Think The Exorcist Could Never Actually Happen (spoken word)
  7. A Ghost Is Born
  8. Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart
  9. A Man Needs a Maid (This Gun’s for Hire) (Arthur Baker 12-inch remix)
  10. Sleep Apnea Study: Raw Sound Files. Subject # N.Y.636
  11. Ivanhoe
  12. Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone: A Tribute to Glass Tiger

Now, having done the heavy lifting on the album titles, the only thing left was to sit down and write the songs that could go with them. So we got to work.

But first…

“The Gallows Pole”

Not a Neil Young song, true, but not not a Neil Young song either. We wanted to ease folks in to our not-yet-Young concept, and “The Gallows Pole” is a great tune from the collection of drunks, wrecks, and breakdowns that Young covered with Crazy Horse in 2012 on Americana. It asks the musical question: Are you – are you? – coming to the tree? No? Oh. And it turns out no one else is either. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.

Hey, it’s Child Ballad #95! It even shows up in Béla Bartók’s collection of Hungarian Folk Songs as “Fehrer Anna”! In Young’s liner notes to Americana, he says the source is probably Finnish. But the truth is, he probably learned it from a) Lead Belly or b) Led Zeppelin. In either case, someone’s getting the lead out.

Here’s what it sounds like, scratch-track style. Go on yourself and take the trombone solo when I yell “Ready, Rob?” We’re in G minor.

“Gallows Pole,” practice scratch track

This would be the first song we worked on as a band for this year’s Kneel to Neil. And it came pretty easy. But at a price, as it turns out. (Cue Chopin’s “Funeral March” at this point). We thought we saw our suitcase player a-comin’: Edward Burch, riding many a mile. But we were mistaken. A week out from the show, Burch told us that neither train, nor plane, nor automobile would bear his weary frame Northward from downstate Illinois to the surf-kissed shores of Lake Michigan.

It’s just like what happens in our version of the song. In most versions, the narrator gets saved: neither father, mother, sister, nor brother arrive with the goods needed to bribe the hangman into slacking his rope for a while, but a sweetheart does manage the job.

But when we sing it, The Viper asks, and the Orchestra answers:

Didn’t bring no silver
Didn’t bring no gold
We came to see you hang, Viper
By the gallows pole.

So there’d be no Burch. And the Kneel the Neil world would be the poorer for it.  The universe was speaking – pouring endless rain into a paper cup – but were we listening?

“ADM: They Bought the Farm”

Our first invented Neil Young song of the night: this one from the never-released, never-recorded, never-considered sequel of sorts to Neil Young’s 2015 release, The Monsanto Years – a follow-up album that, in my dreams, is titled, Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great.

The song we devised, “ADM: They Bought the Farm” (not “Cardamom Woman,” as many have thought, forgivably so, given the lyrics), pulls together musical bits and pieces fro “Tonight’s the Night,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Lyrically, it’s one of not-yet-Young’s most withering critiques of the global food economy, inputs-driven Big Agribusiness, and the prices that we pay, personally and politically, for monocrop culture.

Plus, it lets me play an electric guitar with the distortion on in a drop-D tuning!

Here’s the demo version for the band to hear that I recorded at the same desk at which I’m typing this now.

“ADM: They Bought the Farm” (demo)

Or, if you prefer, a video version of the same wankiness:

ADM: They Bought the Farm (staircase version)

I have to assume this is the song that provoked the “blasphemy” charge. And I can’t say the guy was very far wrong.

“I Wonder If I Care As Much”

We moved back out of not-yet-Youngland for a visit to an early song by Phil & Don Everly that had been covered by Neil Young and Jack White for the 2014 album, A Letter Home.

It’s a really lovely record, all of it recorded on White’s own vintage 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, which you can see demonstrated here:

This part of our Viper and His Famous Orchestra set was a pretty straightforward bid at a shot for me to sing in one of my favorite ways: with Edward Burch, in our all-but-patented band-of-brothers (Everly, Louvin, Osborne, Monroe, Nelso) style. Say it with me, Edward!

Edward: I’m Charlie Kennett…

Viper: And I’m Earl Wayne KENNett…

Edward: And we’re the Kennett Brothers. Who wants to hear a song about gentrification?

This kind of song was our meat. But in Edward’s absence, trombonist Rob Henn valiantly rose to the challenge to harmonize in a slightly-behind-the-beat and melancholy way that would have made Phil and Don (and Charlie and Earl Wayne) proud.

The Everly Brothers, “I Wonder If I Care As Much”

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde”

And now we approach the truly awful part of our story.

Our second not-yet-Young song was, in fact, the first one I wrote. This had been purely an exercise to see if I could write a song to order for the non-released, non-recorded, non-considered Neil Young album Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart.

To write it, I literally just took Young’s line “Rock and roll will never die,” and sang it over and over to myself – making breakfast, drinking coffee in the shower, ironing a shirt, with me little ukulele in me hand – until the alchemy of love & theft, laughter & forgetting, law & order turned it into something else. In this version, an ode to unplanned obsolescence, rock and roll decides it’s better to fade away!

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde” (demo)

But how to tell what I needs next must tell. I suppose I’ll begin with writing the first
sentence – and trusting to the spirit of Kneel to Neil for the second.

This song was supposed to have been a duet – a return of the stylophone that John Peacock had wielded like Thor’s mighty hammer in our past years’ performance of “Transformer Man.” Here’s a taste of that sound:

The Viper and His Second String play “Transformer Man” at a John Peacock birthday party

We’d worked it up, and John sounded great. So great that we invited him and his family over for dinner on the night of the show to celebrate his great sound. So great that, as dinner was wrapping up, I commenced to running around the circle connecting dining room to living room to kitchen to dining room, with John’s young son Lowell chasing right behind. So great that Lowell went faster and faster, like a tiger ’round the tree ready to turn into butter. But instead of turning to butter, he was suddenly tripping on a rug, and falling in terrible slow motion toward a coffee table, and hitting his mouth on its corner, and piercing his lip with a tooth, and sending all three Peacocks off to the emergency room for the rest of the evening.

Now, you should know that, with a few stitches, everything was fine for Lowell, and he had the night of his life at the hospital. (When John asked him what his favorite part was, Lowell told him that all the parts were his favorite parts.)

But it sure spooked the rest of us, and suddenly, our Orchestra, once a five-full throng, was down to three.

“The Sultan”

Absent suitcase and stylophone, we were pretty ill-equipped to tackle what we had thought would be the dark and stormy sonic centerpiece of our night: manoeuvering in the dark with our Orchestral take on the surf rock of “The Sultan,” one of Neil Young’s earliest recordings from his teen Winnipeg days with the Squires.

Let’s let Neil Young explain, this to Mojo writer Nick Kent in a December 1995 article.

Q. You started playing at 14. What was your first guitar?

A. My first was this little plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele…

I knew there was something I liked about this guy!

…then I seem to remember a baritone “uke,” then I had a banjo. So I had all these different-sounding instruments which I played the same way. I played electric lead guitar first. Then I started rocking out in a community-club teenage band. First we were called The Esquires. Then we changed it to The Stardusters. And after that we settled on being called The Squires. Kinda like Spinal Tap’s early days!

Here’s what that sounded like. Turn it up to 11, because tonight’s the night Neil Young is gonna rock you tonight:

Neil Young with the Squires plays “The Sultan” (1963)

Without the stylophone, we were left wordlessly humming the melody. And without the suitcase, we were reduced to stomping our feet as a poor substitute for that big surf backbeat. Blasphemy!

In hindsight, we might have been better off just playing “Vampire Blues” again.

“Four Degrees” aka “After the After the Gold Rush”

And that takes us almost to the end of our story: Edward and his suitcasery stuck in Springfield with the non-mobile blues again, John and his stylophonery stuck in the emergency room with a head full of worry, and Rob, Riley, and I stuck on a stage in the middle of holy war.

So let’s play a last waltz!

When Neil Young wrote about Mother Nature being on the run in the 1970s, I’m not sure he could have known how dire things would be by 2015. His recent and very entertaining memoir of his life with cars, titled Special Deluxe, is largely about his coming to terms with his own complicity as a lover of car culture – and big gas-guzzling cars like 1940s Buicks in particular – with the realities of climate change. Every long drive in the book comes with an accounting of exactly how much poundage of CO2 it put into the atmosphere.

Our own not-yet-Young take on the subject imagines that, pace “After he Gold Rush,”  there’s no silver spaceship coming to take us away to a new home in the sun and that, instead, when the mercury shoots up 4 degrees, and everywhere from Hawaii and Tuvalu to Miami and Perth are submerged under water, our whole species will die off and give the natural order a chance to recover from the failed experiment that was human being.

Enjoy!

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, “Four Degrees.” Aloha, goodbye, adiós, and hooroo!

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – Pt. 2: Love the One You’re Occasionally With

Pt. 2 of 3. For pt. 1, go here. For pt. 3, try this.

Previously, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Synth-pop with a heart
  • Sez-you schlockabilly
  • Blues with the blues hammer down

And now, November 4, 2013

At our first Kneel to Neil in 2011, we explored some of the odder and less loved avenues within the Neil Young multiverse. Some of that unlove we brought back for 2013. But for new material, we turned toward Young’s collaborations with other musicians, most especially with the guy who played on more hit songs from the 1960s than any of us could possibly realize, Booker T. Jones from Stax Records’ Booker T and the MGs.

At least I think that’s what we did. I don’t have any video, or audio, or anything approximating a set list from that night, so I’m kind of faking it here. But I think this is basically how it went down.

“Pound It Out”

This is probably my favorite thing we ever did with Neil Young’s music, and it’s going to be a centerpiece — if we every get around to finishing it — of our EP of Neil Young material we plan to title Hello, Young Lovers. Technically, it’s not Neil Young song. Instead, it’s a piece that Booker T. wrote and to which Neil Young contributed some pretty distinctive guitar work for the 2009 album Potato Hole by Booker T. Jones and the Drive-By Truckers.

I wish we had some audio to show you how we took this Hammond-and-guitar rave-up and made it into a revivally piece for trombone, stylophone, and banjo ukulele. Failing that, I’ll just direct you to the original

“Pound It Out”

“Transformer Man”

We brought this Trans song back from our 2011 set, as described in the previous post. But it’s the prettiest song I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and I’d do a whole set of 15 back-to-back performances of it if you’d let me.

We did record ukulele and bass backing tracks for this, as produced by John Peacock. So here’s what I’d like you to do. Find the song, learn to sing it, come back here, and sing it along with the track below. Good luck! And tell me how it turns out.

“Dirt”

Not a Neil Young song. But when we played on Nov. 4, 2013, the song’s writer, Lou Reed, had just recently passed away. Aside from a shared love/hate relationship with pop songcraft and a shared dialectic understanding of the interrelationships among terms normally understood as binary oppositions —  pretty/ugly, sweet/sour, noise/music — the two performers didn’t have much of a direct connection with one another (though Young played along on a Velvet Underground song at his own Bridge School benefit concert that week!).

Following the lead of another performer earlier in the evening, who did a whole VU medley, I pulled this one out for solo banjo ukulele, in part because the unexpected absence of our regular suitcase player, Edward Burch, had left a whole in the set where one’s heart should be. “Dirt” (as in “you’re just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap uptown dirt”) is one of the songs on 1978’s Street Hassle that isn’t “Street Hassle.”

I don’t have any video or audio footage of this song, but here’s the instrument I played it on!

TheViper-KidTested

“Two Old Friends”

This is an awesome song, from the Are You Passionate? album that Neil Young did in 2012 with Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn from Booker T and the MGs. It’s kind of an uneven album, with this song a real stand-out, in which a preacher dies and goes to meet God, tells him “I’m dreaming of a time when love and music / Is everywhere,” asks “Can you see that time coming?” and God, seeing all the evil and hate of our time, tells him, “No, my son, that time has gone,” and the two agree to have an amicable parting of ways.

Neil Young’s version is a soulful slow rocker that we re-imagined as a country waltz in the “Farther Along” vein. Riley played fiddle! And now you can, too! Play along!

Two Old Friends (violin part). Play with a slight swing and snap.
Two Old Friends (violin part). Play with a slight swing and snap, using open string drones where possible or desirable.

“Vampire Blues”

Back from the dead from our 2011 set, and I’ll invite you to sing along with this one too.

For that purpose, here’s some video that Riley Broach surreptitiously captured while we recording the banjo uke and washtub bass backing tracks for this one, again produced by John Peacock, who you’ll see sitting in the lower right corner of this video, NOT playing along with wire brushes on the washtub. He’ll dub that in later (you can see him air-drumming on the washtub at the three-minute mark). But you can dub your vocals now. The lyrics are below the video (guess which verses we made up ourselves!). You’ll start singing after an 8-bar intro in 2/4.

“Vampire Blues (backing track)”

I’m a vampire, baby: sucking blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby: sucking blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby: I’ll sell you twenty barrels worth

I’m a black bat, honey: knocking on your window pane
I’m a black bat, honey: knocking on your window pane
I’m a black bat, honey: I need my high octane

[Yodel chorus]

I’m a nodding donkey, with a five-mile boom
I’m a pump jack, mama, with a five-mile boom
I can drink your milkshake, from across the fracking room

I’m a coffin kitten, mama: and I play for Edward’s team
From Alberta down to Texas, laying pipe while you dream
And if you’ll invite me in, I’ll lick your tar sands clean

[Drummer solos on washtub]

Good times are coming: you hear it everywhere you go
Good times are coming: you hear it everywhere you go
Good times are coming, but they sure come slow

I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby: I’ll sell you twenty barrels worth

And that’s our show! Thanks for coming out. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

END OF PART 2

Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Hangmen, careless brothers, sultans, and global environmental collapse
  • Archer Daniels Midland, with and without the farm
  • The death rattle of Rock and Roll!